Thursday, March 27, 2014

The First Jewish Community

by Tom Castaldi

Jews had been in the area of Fort Wayne since the days of the French and Indian War in the 1760s.  In 1764, Captain Thomas Morris, a British officer, recalled how he had been saved from being burned at the stake through the friendship of “Mr. Levi, a Jew trader.” Many years later, pack merchants and peddlers who were Jewish were also in the Fort Wayne area.

The first Jewish residents in Fort Wayne were also merchants, all of whom were German immigrants, and it was this small community that organized the first Jewish congregation, “The Society for Visiting the Sick and Burying the Dead.”  Perhaps most notable, this was the first Jewish congregation to be organized in the state of Indiana.

The merchant who became the acknowledged leader of this early community was Frederick Nirdlinger.  His home, which once stood on the southeast corner of Main and Harrison streets, became a meeting place for most of the earliest Jewish religious and social gatherings.  Nirdlinger was active in community affairs, serving as city councilman, a founder of the militia organization known as the Kekionga Guards (a militia organization) and as “Overseer of the Poor” (the predecessor of the present-day township trustee).  His business, the “New York Store” on Main Street, was then the largest clothing store in town.  His grandson was the internationally renowned drama critic and author, George Jean Nathan who was born in 1882 and died in 1958.

Reverend Joseph Salomon was the congregation’s first spiritual leader to be secured and served as cantor and as teacher in the parochial school. In 1859, the “Fort Wayne Hebrew Society,” as the congregation informally called itself, purchased and remodeled the former Bethel German Methodist Episcopal Church at Wayne and Harrison streets. It was here that they dedicated the new facility as the Synagogue Achduth Vesholom (Unity and Peace).

Throughout its early years the congregation was orthodox and German, and its liturgical practice remained conservative.  But under the leadership of Rabbi Edward Rubin, who served the congregation from 1862 until his death in 1881, many in the congregation were attracted to the reform movement. It was led in America by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who delivered a series of lectures in Fort Wayne. The congregation briefly split on the issue, but by 1872 the two were united in following the Reform teachings of Rabbi Rubin and in May 1874 it became a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the principal national Reform organization.

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” Aug 2009 No. 57.

 Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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